Friday, 12 November 2010

Water in any language is sweet

"Hola!" shouts a little boy. "Bonjour", says Winni when I get an early coffee. "Good morning" Bettina greets me. But this is not La Paz, Casablanca or Cape Town, all homes to SOS Children’s Villages. This is the SOS Children’s Village Santo in Haiti, where a variety of nationalities living and working here makes up a veritable Tower of Babel.

The island on which Haiti is located is the second largest in the Caribbean and is shared between two nations, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Because of the colonial history of the island Spanish is spoken in the Dominican Republic and French and Creole spoken in Haiti. I had not expected that I would need Spanish when I came to Haiti so it was a surprise when I realised that several of the SOS co-workers spoke only Spanish, because they come from either the Dominican Republic or Latin America.

The SOS Children's Village is preparing to take on new tasks and more children - Photo: H. Atkins

After January’s earthquake there was an influx of volunteers and SOS co-workers. Although many have now returned home there is a small core of foreign co-workers who are either helping with the SOS emergency relief programme or setting up new procedures and systems for an extended village, which also encompasses temporary shelters and 300 extra children.

SOS co-workers and volunteers from all over the world work at the village in Santo. Pictured: Uli from Germany - Photo: H. Atkins

There’s Uli, who speaks fluent Spanish, with good English and French as well as her native German; Max from Luxembourg, who speaks French, German, English and what he calls Luxembourgish, and whose Spanish improves by the day; Bettina, an Austrian volunteer who seems to be at home in any language and is learning Creole; and Dionisio from Cape Verde who is fluent in Portuguese, Spanish, French and English. Then there are the other co-workers and volunteers from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile and the Dominican Republic. Lucia from Santo Domingo was educated in the US and therefore speaks English brilliantly – she flew over Haiti two days after the earthquake and is still shocked by the memories of what she saw.

Bettina from Austria and Juan from the Dominican Republic give out emergency rations to families during the recent tropical storm - Photo: H. Atkins

As for me who normally lives in Nairobi, it has been a challenge resurrecting my French. Sometimes I am amazed that I remember in one nano-second a word I haven’t used for years and other times my mind goes completely blank, or says the first foreign word it can think of, which is usually in Swahili. Such was the case this afternoon when my French was sorely tested by a conversation with the village engineer. He was showing me a solar filtration system donated to the village and installed in July.

‘Sema tena’, I asked him when I hadn’t understood, being the Swahili for ‘Say it again’. Needless to say the poor engineer was as baffled by my Swahili as I was by his French. But that’s beside the point. The system, which filters ground water into drinking water and is powered by the suns rays, of which there are many in Haiti, is brilliant. It just takes a little pressure on the tap for drinking water to emerge, and on release the water flow stops.

The solar filtration system that produces safe drinking water - Photo: C. Martinelli

It’s amazing that amidst the apparent chaos of post-earthquake Haiti, including a cholera epidemic, there are such simple and effective solutions to be found for safe drinking water. To put it in the language of my co-workers, it’s fantastic, fantastique, fantastico, phantastisch –take your pick – but for the children of the village, energetic and full of life, it’s simply water.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Learning plumbing and cosmetology in Cap Haitien

There are two SOS Children’s Villages in Haiti, one in Santo, just outside Port au Prince, where I am based, and the other in the north at Cap Hatien. According to Wikipedia, Cap Haitien is an historic colonial city with an architectural style similar to New Orleans. It apparently also has the best beaches in Haiti and - before the earthquake - was a stopover for ships cruising the Caribbean. Wikipedia doesn’t mention the SOS Children’s Village, which is actually located just outside the town, nor the school, the social centre or the vocational training centre that are all run by SOS Children’s Villages. But the fact that they are there indicates that Cap Haitien has other needs.
The children of the SOS Children's Village Cap Haitien greet the new arrivals - Photo: H. Atkins

I visited the Cap Haitien children’s village at the weekend just after Hurrricane Tomas, which actually became a tropical storm, had hit Cap Haitien. Like Port au Prince, the area suffered a heavy deluge but thankfully nothing worse, and I found it a haven of calm after the hurly-burly of the capital. The village director, Francois Arror, is a gentle giant of a man, obviously much loved by the children. While we strolled through the village pathways the younger children greeted us as they played, and the older ones invited us into their houses. Further on, a football game was in progress between the energetic village youth, and a small boy sat watching, entranced by the activity.
Refrigeration technology is a popular course at the vocational training centre - Photo: H. Atkins

The village compound encompasses an SOS Hermann Gmeiner School, a social centre (the equivalent of a kindergarten), and a vocational training centre (Centre de Formation). I have seen SOS vocational training centres before, in Africa, where the main subjects taught are usually carpentry, electrical engineering, automotive engineering and tailoring. I was surprised to find that the Cap Haitien Centre de Formation also teaches plumbing, refrigeration engineering, cosmetology (beautician training) and bricklaying, the latter in partnership with Habitat for Humanity.

The plumbing course has a very "hands-on" approach - Photo: H. Atkins

I watched keen students learning the intricacies of connecting water to showers and toilets, others engrossed in the technical parts of a fridge, and a class full of students applying extended false finger nails to willing guinea pigs. My only disappointment was that there were no girls on any of the courses except cosmetology and tailoring. Having said that, the cosmetology course was obviously very popular, with every space taken.

Traditional gender roles still prevail in Haiti - Photo: H. Atkins

My short trip to Cap Haitien was a welcome break from the constant noise in Santo, where an overworked village houses many extra children who lost their parents during the earthquake. It reminded me that SOS Children’s Villages are not only places of refuge, but are permanent homes to thousands of children throughout the world, and that given time, normality will once again return to Santo.

Monday, 8 November 2010

After the storm

Just after I posted my blog yesterday it started raining, and continued to do so for the next 16 hours. It was light rain at first but as the evening set in, it got heavier and the wind became stronger. Children living in the temporary shelters were put to bed, with their SOS aunties, on mattresses in empty classrooms. The rest of the children’s village and the co-workers who stay in the compound retreated to their houses to sit out the storm.

Empty classrooms provided a solid shelter for children living in the temporary shelters - Photo: H. Atkins

There is something comforting about listening to rain when you are protected from it. But we were the lucky ones. The million-plus people living in Haiti’s displacement camps could only hope for the best, which was that the hurricane would not get too close. In the end it turned out that, despite being of hurricane strength, Tomas was far enough away to be downgraded in our part of Haiti to a tropical storm. Yes, we did get a lot of rain, and yes, the wind did blow all night, but I have heard of only one fatality so far. Unfortunately I am unable to leave the village today so cannot verify conditions.

Fortunately, the temporary shelters were not damaged by the storm - Photo: H. Atkins

Meanwhile, as morning came to the SOS Children’s Village, we got up to inspect the damage. We were pleased to find that the temporary shelters were all intact and no parts had blown away. The compound itself, though wet, was not flooded, and children were able to go out to play. But the wind continues to blow as Tomas moves further north and no one is venturing out of the village. Instead every family has received emergency rations to tide them over in case the storm lasts the weekend.

Emegrency rations will tide families over the weekend, if the storm lasts that long - Photo: H. Atkins

And as we thank God that nothing worse happened we think of our co-workers and the children of our sister village at Cap Haitien. The National Hurricane Center in Florida predicts that Tomas will pass directly over northwestern Haiti tonight, which means that the SOS Children’s Village Cap Haitien could be in for a rough time. They are very much in our thoughts and prayers.

Trying to keep dry makes for creative solutions - Photo: H. Atkins